On Constitution Avenue, across from the U.S. Capitol, the third Senate office building is named for Sen. Philip Hart of Michigan, whose centennial birthday is this year.
In a period when anger and despair about a dysfunctional Senate is at an all-time high, it is important to remember Phil Hart, who was universally respected and loved, and regarded as a great senator.
He was a man of uncommon courage and character. He had been seriously injured during the D-Day invasion, when shrapnel from an exploding German artillery shell severed the main artery of his right arm.
Despite not having fully recovered, Hart refused to be sent home and participated in the Battle of the Bulge, which was crucial to winning the war in Europe.
Returning to Michigan after the war, he joined a small band of liberals who built the state’s Democratic Party.
Modest and unassuming for a politician, and a reluctant campaigner, Hart nonetheless rose rapidly because of his intelligence, idealism and unmistakable decency.
He became Michigan’s Secretary of State, U.S. attorney, then lieutenant governor, and was elected to the Senate in the national Democratic landslide of 1958, which formed the foundation of the progressive Senate of the 1960s.
Of all the progressive senators, Hart may have been the most liberal, passionately committed to social and economic justice. He was a leading player in enacting the historic Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and then, even in the face of a conservative backlash across the country, the 1968 Civil Rights Act, to rectify discrimination in housing. He was a strong critic of concentrated corporate power, spearheading investigations into monopoly practices in major sectors of the economy.
Yet, despite his strong convictions, Hart was never strident or dismissive of those who held opposing views. In debate, he would present the views of his opponents fairly, often more effectively than they could. He maintained a close friendship with James Eastland, a Mississippi senator known for racist and anti-Semitic views. Yet although they were friends, when Eastland’s seniority put him in line to be president pro tempore of the Senate, Hart stood alone in opposing his elevation. He recognized Eastland’s right to advance in the Senate due to the seniority system, but thought his regressive views disqualified him from being in the line of succession to the presidency — and said so.
In 1975, Hart announced that he would not seek a fourth term in the Senate. He restated his long-held view that the Senate should be open to younger men and women who had the same energy and idealism that he had brought to the Senate in 1959. Shortly thereafter, he was diagnosed with malignant melanoma, which spread rapidly.
During his last months, Hart continued to work to enact the antitrust legislation still known as Hart-Scott-Rodino. He introduced Harrison Wellford, his legislative director, to Jimmy Carter, helping Wellford secure a job in the White House after Carter’s election. He worried about the future of Detroit, not yet recovered from the riots of 1967, and feared that liberalism had run its course. He expressed anguish that he had failed in his effort to secure blanket amnesty for those who had evaded the draft in protest against the Vietnam War.
When Phil Hart died, 1,200 people gathered in St. Matthew’s Cathedral to celebrate his life. “The rich and the powerful were there, dressed in tailored suits and fine furs,” observed a reporter. “So, too, were the poor and the powerless, dressed in jeans and parkas.”
Columnist Coleman McCarthy wrote: “It was not an accident that he was the most trusted man in American politics. He fronted for no one. His alliances were to timeless ideals, not upstart lobbies. As though he was the wildest of gamblers, he bet that the common vanities of hack politics — images, smiles, calls for brighter days — counted for little. Instead, he waged that conscience and persistence could matter.”
Phil Hart’s character, to borrow Martin Luther King’s famous phrase, reminds and inspires us about public service at its finest.